By Ricky Young.
Things have changed. A bit.
When we last talked about AMC’s The Walking Dead on MostlyFilm, we spent most of the article agog at how a programme so filled with desperate and throbbing flaws could continue to be such a mega-hit.
Make no mistake – and broadsheet media-section column inches be damned – this is by far AMC’s biggest show. Yes, they have Mad Men, of course, watched by Mark Lawson, Mark Lawson’s cat, Mark Lawson’s commissioning editor and absolutely nobody else. They had Breaking Bad, which managed a degree of cultural significance by repackaging the good bits of The Shield half-a-decade later, and whose ludicrously hype-drenched finale was watched by a supposedly epic 10.3 million viewers.
Want to know something? Thirteen out of The Walking Dead’s sixteen third-season episodes beat the ass off that. More people regularly tuned in to watch Egg out of This Life get chased by golems again than could be bothered finding out what ended up happening to Walter White. (Spoiler: He returned to his own planet.)
People sure do love the heck out of zombies, it seems. But, like a creeping, tenacious infection, spreading from a single starting point and extending its influence into multiple parts of the whole, this year The Walking Dead showed signs of an extremely worrying and unexpected new symptom.
This was on telly a year ago – spoilerphobes can get dangled down a well for all I care.
END SPOILER WARNING
Not brilliance. Competence. There’s a difference. However, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, the pre-title sequence of the first episode of season three was brilliant in almost every way.
I’m deadly serious. In three minutes of spare, dialogue-free action, we are instantly, expertly brought up to speed with the plight of Egg & The Fucknuts. Time has clearly passed since the zombie-rout of Pastoral Acres; everyone is completely strung out as they run from shack to shack, wolfing down the occasional bite of dog food or freshly-killed owl. The jangly edits, the hurried and furtive looks between characters, the claustrophobic sound design – it all screams ‘desperation’. The cyphers we’ve grown to know and tolerate are given place and meaning by incredibly skilled direction. These are people on the run from a terrible menace, and as soon as they get a moment’s peace to sit and sigh and take stock, a glance out the window at the approaching terror tells them they have to move on. It all has to end.
The titles are here. And the awful, awful scriptwriters are right behind.
Such a thrilling opening was like a bucket of ice-water to the face for TWD viewers. We’ve talked before about the jumble of conflicting reasons why people choose to tune in week after week, but it’s never been down to ‘the show being good’ for any significant length of time. It’s clearly not an easy show to work on – the behind-the-scenes high-speed revolving doors are testament to that – but at this point it seemed that show-runner Glen Mazzara finally got a handle on what The Walking Dead needed to do in order to claw its way out of the mire. And by the end of the season he may even have become within brain-splattering distance of doing so. Considering there were moments in S2 where the end of the world would have seemed preferable to continuing, we may consider this an improvement.
So take a stroll with MostlyFilm – Europe’s Best Website – as we check in with the poor sods on the screen, and see what sort of hand they’ve been dealt this year. Chances are it’s a severed human hand dripping with unholy gore, but beggars, in this instance, can’t be choosers.
Egg out of This Life is still the leader of the Fucknuts, more out of habit than anything else, and shortly after the season starts he leads them to the prison spotted in the last shot of S2. As it’s taken them the whole winter to get there, this presumably means that Egg has been taking them in circles for six months, which speaks volumes about his skills as a Project Manager.
Saddled with an ungrateful group of followers, an idiot son, and married to the World’s Worst Person – who, lest we forget, is about to give birth to another man’s child – Egg out of This Life was always going to have a rough time of it this year. Unsurprisingly he deals with it all incredibly badly, including going quite, quite mad for a short while. This wasn’t all bad, as at least we got a glimpse of another more interesting character lurking under his own, but by the time the season wrapped up, and a few things started going well, Egg out of This Life had maybe got his shit together? As an emotional journey, it was little more than a trip to the fridge and back, but both for Egg and the show a big weight had been lifted. Want to guess what it was?
In a show which made a habit of copping out of making big decisions, and seemingly wilfully going out of its way to ignore the realities of the situation these people are in (oh, by the way, if you’re catching up, the world has a) ended, and b) is full of zombies who want to kill you, and c) as everyone carries the zombie virus, if you die, you will become a zombie. Clear? Excellent.) it simply couldn’t ignore the twin dilemma that was Lori. Firstly, giving birth in a viciously hostile environment was never going to be easy. Secondly, Lori was hated by everyone both onscreen and off, for having a personality you could bottle, set on fire and then throw at riot police – the show stopped dead in its tracks whenever she opened her yap. I’d like to spend some time noting that episode four concluding with Lori sacrificing herself for her child by giving birth via hunting-knife-to-the-abdomen, then avoiding zombification by being shot in the head by her own son was a bold and brutal move by the producers, as I genuinely think it was, but just replaying it in my head means I have to go and celebrate wildly, like the entire The Walking Dead audience did at the time.
Right, I’m back. Where were we? Oh yes. You know who wasn’t happy about having to shoot his own mother in the head? That’s right. SHUT UP, CARL!
SHUT UP, CARL!’s uneasy ride into adolescence hasn’t made the audience like him any more. In fact, it’s not just enough to finish every line with a simple, tossed-off ‘SHUT UP, CARL!’. He still can’t walk, talk or do a goddamn thing without it being pointless and irritating, but he’s grown a reckless tinge and a smirky, early-teenage curl to the lip and a which has inevitably required his promotion to FUCK-YOU, CARL!.
What was that? You had to shoot your own mother in the head? Difficult, was it, you moping little psycho? Well, FUCK-YOU, CARL!
Earlier in the show’s run, the death of Lori would have been strung out for half a season, but the new-found flirtation with competence I mentioned earlier meant it was dealt with relatively briskly. Yes, it sent Egg out of This Life over the edge for a bit, but at least we moved on. For a bunch of people – and a show – so at risk from standing still, this was immense progress.
There’s a downside to shedding dead weight, however. Sometimes not-dead-but-only-sleeping weight has to go too. Say, where *is* T-Dog?
Theodore ‘T-Dog’ Douglas, long of fan support and short of spoken lines – how we’ll miss thee. T-Dog’s fate was sealed when, like a middle-ranking nobody on America’s Next Top Model who suddenly gets some attention from Tyra, he unexpectedly started yakkin’ away like there was no tomorrow. Unfortunately for T-Dog, that did indeed turn out to be the case.
As the group settled into the prison, uneasily getting on with its former inhabitants, there was bound to be friction and during one such internecine barney, zombies got inside the prison walls, trapping some of our heroes. Or, and I’m tearing up as I type this, one particular hero.
As token black man T-Dog was taken down while letting Carol (of whom more later) escape, he was given a dignity in death he was never afforded in life, even if a zombie was munching his face off at the time. Farewell, T-Dog. You were a man. You were black. The succession of token black men brought in to replace you? None of them were as brilliantly token as you. Sleep well.
Carol, as mentioned, has been peculiarly well-served by the writers, and has been the only character to emerge from the early-season stew of nobodies with something like a individual personality. Initially a domestic-abuse victim, she’s quietly dealt with the tragedies that befell her to come out a recognisable human being. I’m certainly not saying she’s a fizzing ball of charisma – that would be a stretch – but as the series went on, her tentative and cautious relationship with hillbilly hero Daryl Dixon was the first interaction within the group that felt as if it could be because the characters wanted to talk to each other rather than as simply a necessary function of the plot.
Talking of necessary plot functions, here comes one now!
In season three, TWD is still generally shackled to the comics from which it lurched forth. And so, we embarked upon the comics’ Governor plotline – the prison in which Egg & The Fucknuts have established their home is near to the town of Woodbury, a walled model town still bravely holding out against the zombies and run on semi-benign, semi-ruthless lines by the aforementioned Governor. Any hope that this magnetic Jim Jones-style character would make an effective Big Bad this season was fatally undercut by the casting of doughy teddy-bear David Morrissey, with an accent that can make a lightning-fast tour of the entire Deep South between the beginning and end of a line.
What hesitant shuffles TWD made in coherency and plotting this year were often tripped up by the season’s sixteen-episode length. That led to a LOT of filler, such as elongated glimpses into everyday life in Woodbury, angst over the Governor’s quest to find a cure for his zombie daughter (every conversation between the Gov and his scientist assistant took approximately ONE MILLION YEARS onscreen), and the humans vs zombies wrestling-matches that he used to keep the townspeople amused, for some reason.
Even Michael Rooker returning for the first (proper) time since the pilot as Daryl’s redneck brother Merle was injected with Morrissey-flecked yawnage, as his gig as the Governor’s lieutenant gave rise to the endless going-nowhere back-and-forth we got so bored with in the earlier seasons.
Egg out of This Life vs David Morrissey grew to the the season’s defining theme, but with both of them chronically unable to make decisions outside of the occasional psychotic episode or hissy fit, it led to a lot of jaw-jaw. Especially as Morrissey took up with Blondie for the back half of the year. Remember her?
Abandoned by the Fucknuts at the end of S2, we rejoin her, having partnered up with a scary, katana-wielding girlfriend named Michonne – the show is strangely coy about explicitly stating the nature of their relationship, mind you – and their eating-gophers-in-the-forest bliss is disrupted when they’re captured by the Governor’s men. Blondie then takes up with the Gov, in perhaps 2013’s most nails-down-a-blackboard pairing, as her quest to square away her new beau with her loyalties to her old pals becomes the stuff of violently-cracked LCD screens across the nation.
Michonne herself is symbol for the problems the show faced this year. A wildly kick-ass new character (we first meet her with two de-clawed, de-jawed zombies on chains as packhorses, for flip’s sake!) whose natural charisma draws the eye like no other, especially when in a rumble with the undead – I should say here that the action sequences in this show remain absolutely fantastic – and yet she’s given nothing to do and we learn nothing about her. She just prowls round the edges of scenes, like a pissed-off panther, occasionally grunting when poked by a Fucknut. It’s all very well having an extremely cool character with a mysterious set of motivations all their own (hooray for adding her!), but if you aren’t going to give the audience the slightest hint as to what they are, then what’s the point? (boo for doing nothing with her!)
The season ended with the Governor’s mystifying inability to let the prison-dwellers just get on with things all coming to a head, and it was bad news for the people of Woodbury. The Governor managed to escape, but as his tiff with Blondie ended with her brains up a wall, (oh well, how sad, never mind etc) it won’t be long until Michonne literally slices up that little plot-strand in S4.
As the final episode slid to a sun-dappled close, Egg out of This Life having come out the the other side of his grief-induced madness, welcomed the Woodbury survivors into the prison, and we were left with the hope that S4 might stray away from the original comic material and become a show in its own right – perhaps encouraging the good bits to get longer and longer until it’s nothing but good bits. There has been another back-stage clearout, so stranger things have happened. But sixteen million viewers are sixteen million viewers, no matter how you repeatedly and violently slice it. Will AMC allow its flesh-ripped champion to step too far from its rain-making formula? We shall see.
Oh, wait! I totally forgot about Glenn and Maggie!
Yeah. Nobody gives a fuck about Glenn and Maggie.
Ricky is on The Tweeter.